Presented on September 19, 2007 in the Barn at Quarry Farm. Since the early days of Twain biography there have been great debates about the nature of Samuel Clemens' final years. Scholars have speculated whether Clemens' last decade was ruled by a growing misanthropy or if he retained his keen sense of humor and social commentary. The era of Mark Twain scholarship began when Clemens' last decade was first examined in depth by Hamlin Hill in his Mark Twain: God's Fool (1973). Hill created a furor in Twain circles with his portrayal of Clemens has a misguided King Lear spewing bitterness and alienating those closest to him with the exception of the few sycophants able to weather his storms. Hill's work was groundbreaking and Twain critics have reacted to it, positively and negatively, ever since. Most recently Karen Lystra has argued in Dangerous Intimacy (2004) that Hill erred in his characterization about the bleakness of Clemens' years and that this "myth" should be put to rest. In Lystra's view, Clemens' optimism and wit remained intact until the end. As interesting as these diametrically opposed and impassioned arguments have been, what has misinformed them is that to date no one has ever determined what actually happened during Clemens' annus horribilis of 1908-1909.
Laura Skandera Trombley is former president of Pitzer College and the Huntington Library. She is the author of Mark Twain in The Company of Women (1994), Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years (2010); and the co-editor of Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship (2011).